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An African Iron-age Kingdom leaving a legacy and some mystery.

Published 31 January 2011 under Travelogue • Comments: 2
An African Iron-age Kingdom leaving a legacy and some mystery.
The World Heritage Site of Mapungubwe while being of enormously significant historical value has had a rocky past and seems destined to face future difficulties. The discovery of the site in 1933 confirmed the existence of a population of commercially active indigenous people that thrived and traded in this area of Southern Africa in the 13th century.  The exciting discovery was kept relatively quiet. Of course, the history books told a different story of a dark continent liberated by colonialism. This premature revelation was not welcome.
The Mapungubwe Hill (meaning- Hill where the Jackal eats- in the Venda language) was recently declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The hill marks the confluence of the Limpopo and Sashe Rivers and was the site of the capital of an advanced and successful African Kingdom between around 1030 and 1290 AD. The site of the iron-age metropolis is strategically placed where today, three countries, South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe, meet. The hill of Mapungubwe juts boldly out of the surrounding landscape, a long, flat-topped sandstone hill with vertical cliffs and two visible levels.
At the time of the discovery, the hilltop and the remains of the settlement were covered with a substantial layer of soil. Careful excavations have disclosed a fascinating Iron-age settlement that was deserted when climate change forced the community to move north. The lower terrace appears to have been inhabited for approximately 260 years from AD 1030 to 1290 and the hilltop itself for only the last 70 years of the dynasty. Archeologists have linked Mapungubwe to Great Zimbabwe and suspect that this was the forerunner to that great Kingdom. It is thought that as many as 5000 people lived in the city and surrounds. Archeologists believe Mapungubwe to be the first class-based social system in southern Africa. Evidence suggests that the leaders were separated from, and higher in rank than, the inhabitants. Royalty lived and were buried on the Hill of the Jackal. There is a natural amphitheatre at the base of the hill where it is likely that royal court was held.  
Excavations have yielded gold and ivory artifacts and other items of Arab origins as well as articles from places as far flung as Indonesia and China. An outstanding discovery was the famed Golden Rhino which is now on display in the Pretoria Museum.  The golden rhino and a royal scepter were recovered from the Mapungubwe graves. These objects were fashioned from gold sheet or gold foil gaining shape from wooden carvings. The wooden works were wrapped in delicate gold sheeting that was secured with tacks. The gold was then decorated with punched indentations and incised patterns and lines.
The golden rhino and scepter were obviously associated with royalty and were buried with the deceased leaders in accordance with traditions and beliefs. The suspected royal skeletons were found buried in a seated position. Crude pottery figurines of animals and humans that were recovered are believed to have had symbolic significance.
Jewelry was common and these iron- age villagers adorned themselves with pieces made from the shells of giant land snails and ostrich eggs, ivory, bones and cowie shells as well as imported and traded artifacts from far afield.   Also found were many practical every-day articles, notably spindles for spinning cotton cloth as well as bone needles, proof of the manufacture of clothes from animal skins and crude cotton cloth. Arrowheads of polished bone similar to those used by the San have been found. The skilled smiths at Mapungubwe appear to have further flattened the front end of these arrow heads and fitted iron tips.    
The Mapungubwe Hill and site of this African Kingdom fall within the newly formed Mapungubwe National Park. The National Park is home to elephant, rhino, lion, hyena and many antelope species including the uncommon red hartebeest and eland. Visitors can stand on the ridge overlooking the confluence of the Limpopo and Sashe Rivers and the landscape of ancient valleys studded with enormous baobab trees. The Limpopo Valley is a birders paradise with over 400 species having been sighted . The riverine forest, wetlands and sandstone cliffs interspersed with mopane bushveld offer diverse habitats and attract an impressive diversity of birds.   Here, within this valley, sacred rock shelters can be found with superb specimens of San rock art. These diminutive people left a legacy of ancient art painted on rock with an underlying message to us; the custodians of the future.
Recently interested parties have called for and been working towards the declaration of the Limpopo Shashe Transfrontier Conservation Area (LSTCA) thereby ensuring the findings at Mapungubwe and their significance should benefit the entire region, regardless of international boundaries. There is an encouraging commitment to careful, sustainable development and tourism, with the primary aim being the preservation of this cultural treasure.
A new challenge in the chronicle of Mapungubwe has since surfaced in the form of the granting of the largest land claim in the history of South Africa. Concern about the future of Mapungubwe is once again an issue after the hill of Mapungubwe and 56 surrounding farms were awarded to the Machete royal family in August 2009.
Tele Mapoto, land claims commissioner for Limpopo Province says his office and South African National Parks are currently in discussion with the Machete family to work out some negotiated agreement regarding Mapungubwe. He says the commission has done years of research and remain convinced that the Machete family are the rightful owners of Mapungubwe.
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Jurgen Elbertse
Tue, 19 Apr 2011 08:06:45 +0200
Can't wait for you research camp to open in Mapungubwe Private Nature Reserve!
Angela Young
Wed, 24 Aug 2011 21:56:24 +0200
Great article, Judes. Can I get a copy to put on our website?

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